Falling Awake: Islands

Falling Awake: Islands

Falling Awake: Islands

In the years before now, when we gave no thought to our kids being gunned down at elementary school, those days before elusive boys with precision rifles made going to a parade, a church, a market, a mall a terrifying decision and a testament to political gridlock, in the years when most of us followed a few social etiquettes instead of excessive social media (and I hadn’t yet fallen behind on most of it because I am social media’d out), in those years before acronyms passed for communication and emojis for interaction, I began my first book.

I didn’t know I was writing a book.

Introduced to “writers to pay attention to” by my favorite college professor, a feminist from Texas who let her gray hair sprout in her early 40s instead of becoming honey blonde for the rest of her middle age, it was in her classroom that I realized my sentences didn’t have to say anything profound — a relief since I hadn’t yet done anything profound — it was more in the way they were said.

Soon after, I moved from the East Coast to the West, where my first poems grew into “a collection.” That collection, more than anyone or any place, helped me adjust to my new “coast.” And I called it “a coast,” but I knew it wasn’t at all the same sort of “coast” as I’d left behind. The first time I crossed Puget Sound on a ferry that divides one way of life from another, I could hardly believe I’d found such a green, safe place.

That first ferry ride still moves me — the sheer, fluid fact of it.

And I think of it now because I’m on another ferry to Orcas Island. It’s the perfect summer-we-long-for day. Rosario Strait is calm. Overhead, there is a low-flying private jet, and I search the sky for others the way I look for eagles.

“There’s another Learjet,” I say, and my seatmate corrects me.

“It’s a Gulfstream,” he says. “No one flies Lears anymore.” The personal aircraft of the ultra-wealthy, well, apparently, I’ve fallen behind on this, too. Sorry.

I’ve only met one man with his own jet, ever. He was much older than his wife, and I met them both on the island of Kauai, where, at a restaurant in Princeville, she asked me about the basket I was carrying. Her eyes reflected what I thought was interest, so I started to say how the basket is handmade by Hawaiian women, but she looked right past me.

So, I stopped talking. And when she asked me how much it cost, I pretended that I didn’t hear. I always tread carefully when I talk about money with anyone who seems to have plenty of it, even if they bring the subject of money up — especially if they bring it up.

This carefulness is even more pronounced now, ever since my best friend from college married a man who made millions in Silicon Valley doing something that has something to do with something I can’t recall, fathom or explain, and now she is something I do understand: being extremely rich. And she will remain so as long as she upholds the myth of a faithful marriage.

Some years ago, we ordered martinis in a restaurant I couldn’t afford, and she admitted that it’s “worth it” because she can do whatever she pleases: redecorate, travel, acquire real estate. But once the gin hit my bloodstream, the what-do-I-really-think clock started to tick, and I had to go and question a life where money is all that matters. I mean, honest to Pete, why did I have to go and say that? I didn’t hem and haw either, I just blurted it out.

Both of us sat silent for a moment. I heard her take a breath. Some harsh accusations ensued.

Years passed.

Nearly a decade later, she still hasn’t forgiven me.

At one point, I considered apologizing for, like, the umpteenth time, but the thought of that conversation brought me face to face with my face in the mirror — who was decidedly against the idea. Which isn’t to say she isn’t sorry. It’s just that I feel firmly that somewhere around the third apology, our old friend was just not having it.

Still, losing someone you love is always a loss. Which is what I tell my sister when the subject of my old college friend comes up and I say that I am “over it.”

I’m not over it.

I’m no longer flooded with regret, but I’m soggy.

By the time I walk off the ferry, I smell rain and know that tomorrow’s ferry ride will likely be spent inside the cabin. But for now, topside, I don’t miss a thing about the city and all its troubles. And when I think of my old friend who could be flying with her husband on their private jet to an island like Catalina or Malta, well, my first thought is that I’m sure theirs is not a Learjet. Because they keep up.

On a San Juan island, one can almost believe we are living in an earlier time, those years before highly polarized issues provoke us so habitually that we can’t figure out the real issues fast enough, before 40-year-old billionaires bought personal jets and personal islands, before way, way too many people bought semi-automatic weapons, in a time long before people could read this on the same day I write it.


— Mary Lou Sanelli’s latest book is Every Little Thing, nominated for a 2022 Washington State Book Award. For more information, visit www.marylousanelli.com.